Five struggling NFL teams poised to bounce back in the second half

As the NFL reaches its midpoint crescendo, fans across the country have turned to despair as their favorite team continues to struggle.

Teams that many expected to contend have somewhat fallen off the map due to a multitude of reasons.

We plan on looking at five struggling teams we feel are primed for a second-half surge, teams whose talent levels suggest a better record than they currently have.

While we aren’t suggesting these teams are primed for a Super Bowl run or playoff push, we feel confident that they will have a nice resurgence to end the season.

1. Arizona Cardinals: 3-4-1

The Cardinals were presumed to be Super Bowl favorites out of the NFC. Here’s a team that went to the NFC Championship game last year and lost a rough outing to the Carolina Panthers. It also shored up key depth spots in free agency and the draft while developing the young talent already on the team. Unfortunately, the Cardinals have reached the midway point of the season with an abysmal 3-4-1 record.

Yet the most interesting part of that record is the fact that the Cardinals arguably should be 7-1 but three of their losses, as well as the lone tie, can directly be attributed to a special teams unit that went from elite to horrid in less than 12 months.

The Cardinals team holds the sixth-highest scoring differential in the NFL, a margin of +4.9 that highlights the disparity between Special Teams and the Offense/Defense.

Add in the elite turnover differential, and as long as the Cardinals special teams unit can progress to the mean and become even average, they could potentially win the NFC West and make a playoff run.

The special teams unit has an elite return man in Patrick Peterson and a kicker Chandler Catanzaro was extremely reliable last year. If the Cardinals can get that back on track, things could get interesting.

The defense has been consistently dominant (top-five in the league), the offense has a top-tier quarterback as well as the best running back in the NFL and Bruce Arians has grown into an elite-level coach. There is no reason this team won’t be second-half contenders.

2. Cincinnati Bengals: 3-4-1

While many expected the Bengals to make a deep playoff run this season, that has been far from the case.
With star play caller Hue Jackson now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and the loss of two key supporting receivers opposite A.J. Green, the Bengals have struggled to begin the season.

Two key points that should give us more hope for a second half resurgence are Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert and offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.

Tyler Eifert had to sit out the first seven games of the season due to injury, and the red-zone offense suffered greatly as a result.

What was once a hallmark of Marvin Lewis’ squad (No. 6 red-zone scoring offense in 2015) has fallen upon hard times. While some of that can be attributed to the growing pains of a new coordinator, the stark contrast between the red zone offense with Eifert vs. without is startling.

As Joe Goodberry of BleacherReport’s NFL1000 series has pointed out, a red-zone offense that ranked 29th in the league without Eifert has seen a dramatic uptick in scoring with the star tight end in the lineup.

While one can’t expect a 100 percent conversion rate in the red zone, if Cincinnati had been converting at the same 72 percent clip it did in 2015, you could add an average of nine points per game to the Bengals’ total.

While that is all speculation, those numbers alone would add at least two wins to the Bengals’ record, and dramatically changes the season outlook for Cincinnati.

One other issue plaguing the Bengals has been the play calling of offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.

Zampese, a first-time NFL coordinator who last held the title in 1995 as the play caller for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks of Division I-AA (FCS) college football, has been with the Bengals’ organization as a quarterback’s coach since 2003.

It is expected for a new offensive coordinator to have growing pains, and that has shown with Zampese making our “Bonehead plays of week 6” list recently (more on that here).

Despite the harsh criticism Zampese has received, with the return of his biggest red-zone weapon one can fully expect the numbers to balance back towards the favor of Cincinnati.

One example here against the Washington Redskins highlights the blocking ability Eifert brings to the table, something backups C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft were lacking.

Couple that with the matchup nightmare he brings as a 6-foot-6, 256-pound player who runs a 4.6 40-yard dash, and you can see why Eifert is a major cog in this offense, one that will help lead a potential second-half resurgence for Cincinnati.

3. San Diego Chargers: 4-5

The San Diego Chargers are truly a tale of two halves.

The fourth-quarter collapses this season have truly become a hallmark of Charger football it seems, and the Joey Bosa fiasco didn’t help put the team in a favorable light.

Despite the multitude of issues and injuries, the Chargers have cranked out on of the top-scoring offenses in the league and don’t seem poised to slow that down at all.

The biggest issue this year for the Chargers has been the injuries. Injuries hurt depth, which increases fatigue on starters and causes the late-game collapses.

With the multitude of injuries slowing down these past few weeks, it has allowed the Chargers to rotate players at a higher level and cultivate depth. That, combined with the return of Bosa and an explosive offense, gives hope for a second half surge.

One key in all of this, aside from an explosive offense, is rookie defensive Joey Bosa.

After dealing with a contract dispute to start the season as well as a hamstring injury, Bosa has come on the scene at a historic pace.

Combine the motor and skill set with the fact that Bosa produces, and offenses are gearing blocking schemes around him, which is amazing to say as a rookie.

Bosa’s rate of production is something to behold as well, outpacing just about every great rookie pass rusher in recent history.

Combine a historically good rookie creating opportunities for a defense that thrives on turnovers alongside an explosive offense led by star quarterback Philip Rivers, and it’s safe to say the Chargers are primed for a surprising second half.

4. Carolina Panthers: 3-5

At the beginning of the season if you had told me the 14-2 Super Bowl runner-up Carolina Panthers would have a losing record at the midway point if this season, I probably would have laughed you off.

Despite losing Josh Norman to the Washington Redskins, the Panthers continued to add depth through the draft and returned budding star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from injury.

Cam Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, now had a massive chip on his shoulder and was looking forward to a season-opening Super Bowl 50 rematch in Denver.

Fast forward nine weeks and the Panthers have been rocked by short-term injuries in key spots, and are continually being gashed on a defense that was top-five in the league last season.

Despite being third in the league versus the rush, the Panthers are giving up 286 passing yards per game, good for 29th in the league.

While the offense has seen a resurgence despite the repeated attempts by defenses to target and injure Cam Newton (more  on that here), the defense is still struggling, albeit not to the extent they were before the Week 7 bye week.

Cam Newton is returning to form, and the run defense will continue to be elite.

While the panthers have issues in key spots, such as running back and cornerback, Ron Rivera is still a top-tier coach and any team with Cam Newton leading the offense is sure to be a threat.

One thing to note is the turnover differential. While the Panthers’ defense has forced 11 turnovers, the turnover differential is minus-six on the year.

While that is only 10 interceptions (six by Cam Newton and four by backup Derek Anderson), opponents have only forced five fumbles on the year but recovered seven.

Essentially, defenses have been very lucky in the turnover department against the Panthers, a team that boasted a plus-20 turnover margin last year.

While the Cam Newton is on pace to throw just two more interceptions than last season, the defense hasn’t been capitalizing like normal, and opposing defenses have been very lucky in capitalizing on turnover chances.

That quirk can be expected to regress to the mean as the season wears on, and as the Panthers return key players from injury one can expect the defense to push that turnover differential back towards the positive.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers: 4-4

The Steelers are a disappointing 4-4 for a multitude of reasons. The defense hasn’t been as dominant as usual, with teams passing at a 65.9 percent clip against the Steelers.

Add in a negative turnover differential and the fact that Roethlisberger was without LeVeon Bell (suspension) to start the season along with Ladarius Green (injured) and Martavis Bryant (suspension) and it is easy to see why the Steelers have been struggling this year.

There is one major shining light though, and that is head coach Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin is a fantastic coach, one who is very good at second half adjustments not only in-game but also during the season.

He has a track record, as seen above, of having fantastic second-half teams each season. On top of that, any team helmed by Ben Roethlisberger is a dangerous one, and you can expect him to will the Steelers to a few key wins.

While they started hot, opening the season 4-1, the Steelers have dropped three straight and Roethlisberger isn’t pleased, nor is he panicking.

In a sound bite posted to the Steelers twitter account, Roethlisberger had the following to say:

“Follow me. Guys that have been here that know, no time or reason to panic.”

Guard Ramon Foster, who has been with the Steelers since 2009, responded with this quote posted to the Steelers team website:

“It’s more than just the lip service that comes behind that statement, he’s actually putting it into action. When you have a guy of his stature, for him to say something like that, you just roll with him.”

With one of the best coaches in the NFL, as well as a strong and talented leader at quarterback, the Steelers are primed for a second-half resurgence that could possibly propel them to a playoff berth.